The Secret History (1992)
Donna Tartt's outstanding first novel, written while she was a student at Bennington, is a terrific mystery and, I think, an insidious look at the pathologies of the modern university. Richard Papen is a lower middle class Californian who has wended his way to Hampden College in Vermont, largely because he like the picture on the catalogue. Richard happens to be proficient in several languages, so he tries getting into one of Professor Julian Morrow's classical language classes. But he discovers that Morrow only teaches a select handful of students and teaches every class that they take. They form an elite clique within the elite campus. Eventually, Richard attaches himself to this group and is admitted to Morrow's disciple hood.
Morrow remains a sort of opaque presence, but Richard's life is soon entwined with the other students, lead by the wealthy & arrogant Henry Winter and including Charles and Camilla MacCaulay, the overly close twins, Francis Abernathy, a flamboyant homosexual, and Edmund "Bunny" Corcoran, a rumpled preppy of dubious social grace. Richard longs to fit into this group and, ashamed of his rather plebeian origins, is soon inventing a fake background for himself and taking on pseudo sophisticated airs.
However, there's more to this little clan than meets the eye, and as the story unfolds, he discovers that during an attempt to recreate a Dionysian frenzy, Henry, Francis and the twins have killed a local man. Now Bunny has found them out & is basically blackmailing them, exacting a cruel revenge for their many slights. Inevitably, they decide that Bunny must die and the rest of the book deals with the murder's aftermath.
When this book was first published it was attended by tremendous hype, both because of the youth of the author and because of her mentors, Willie Morris & Brett Easton Ellis among them. But the hype, and the comparisons to Crime and Punishment, could not obscure the fact that Ms Tartt had penned an absorbing gothic mystery which quickly became a bestseller.
I agree with many of the criticisms of the novel. Some of the characters are underwritten and we are not adequately exposed to the teaching of Julian Morrow that makes him so attractive to the students. However, these legitimate gripes are outweighed by the creepy mesmeric can't-put-it-down story that the author weaves.
In addition, I think there's another reading that you can apply to the book with some profit. The effete, elitist, amoral, hothouse atmosphere fostered by Morrow and embraced by the clique is an apt metaphor for the modern university. Here are students who are absorbed by their studies, or at least by the aura of their studies, 24 hours a day, who cede complete control of their own minds to their instructor. Not content with the elitism of a University so expensive that there are few middle class students anyway, they've further segregated themselves into a small band of like minded students. If they get in trouble, it's in the pursuit of some romantic intellectual ideal and after all, who do they kill, just a townie and a slacker student.
However you interpret the story, it's a rewarding reading experience.
-TRIBUTE: Donna Tartt on the Singular Voice, and Pungent Humor, of Charles Portis (Donna Tartt, 6/09/20, NY Times)
From the uncanny power of Peter Pan to the magic of Treasure Island … the legacy of Scottish literature that moulded me (Donna Tart, 28 September 2003, Sunday Herald)
Rereadings: How Mattie got her man (Donna Tartt, January 8, 2005, The Guardian)
The Secret History: Whatever happened to Donna Tartt? (Boyd Tonkin, 21 May 2002, The Independent)
-REVIEW : of THE LITTLE FRIEND by Donna Tartt (Kirkus Reviews)
Book-related and General Links:
-Mississippi Writers Page
-PROFILE: Tartt's secret: 10 years after hugely successful 'Secret History,' novelist has recaptured spotlight with 'Little Friend' (Heidi Benson, December 2002, SF Chronicle)
-PROFILE : The Secret History: Whatever happened to Donna Tartt? (Boyd Tonkin, 21 May 2002, Independent uk)
-Review from NY Times (Michiko Kakutani)
-Review from New York Times Book Review
-REVIEW: of The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt (Jennifer Egan, NY Observer)
-REVIEW: of The Little Friend by Donna Tartt (Robin Vidimos, The Denver Post)
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt (Ruth Franklin, New Republic)
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